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Broadband gets a helping hand

Behind this week’s news that MTN fibre provider Supersonic has launched a fixed LTE service is an effort to rethink home connectivity, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

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This week, MTN made its biggest play yet into the market for fibre connections to homes, but its biggest impact may well be within the home.

The mobile operator’s fibre-to-the-home subsidiary, Supersonic, launched a Fixed LTE offering on a month-to-month basis, meaning that homes in areas not yet wired for fibre can receive high-speed broadband. More important, they can get that access at rates that seem unprecedented for mobile data. 

There are two differences from regular packages, however. For one thing, the SIM card that comes with the package only works in specific routers that have to remain plugged into a power supply. For another, the data allocation is split half-half between regular hours and a Night Owl timeframe: the hours between midnight and dawn.

“It just needs users to adjust their internet behaviour a little,” says Calvin Collett, MD of Supersonic. “Conducting massive mobile phone updates or downloading an entire library of Netflix content shouldn’t be prioritised during the day, but should be scheduled for Night Owl data consumption.”

The biggest benefit, aside from pricing, is that one does not have to wait for fibre to arrive in a specific area. While Supersonic’s core business is fixed-line fibre-to-the-home, it is now set to leverage its parent company’s massive mobile data network.

“MTN’s LTE network coverage sits at 95%, after billions of rand was invested in network upgrades in recent years. There is absolutely no reason why those waiting for a fibre connection shouldn’t move to Fixed LTE.”

Collett argues that consumers are far more savvy and well informed of developments in the telecoms space than observers think. They carefully investigate the products and services they choose to spend on, and are looking for the best deals available.

The result is that Supersonic has quietly built up a side business in installing what is called a Mesh Wi-Fi network, consisting of a main Wi-Fi router connected to the standardfibre or LTE or router, and a series of additional access pointscalled plumes, placed in areas of low coverage through ahome.

The plumes – small pods that plug into any power point –connect to one another to expand the network across a wide area. Where traditional WI-FI extenders lose up to half the fibre bandwidth with every extension, the plumes maintain most of the speed regardless of how far the network is extended. All the pods connected to the same router form a single network with the same network name, eliminating the complications Wi-FI extenders usually introduce.

“The traditional Wi-Fi router has replaced the dial up connection, and we’re all happy about this – the infamous dial up tone is ingrained in the brains of anyone over the age of 30,” says Collett. “Wi-Fi revolutionised our way of life as the router gave us access to the internet without directly connecting to a modem. 

“We’ve moved forward, transitioning from ADSL to fibre. While fibre allows for high speed internet access, it is still connected to your Wi-Fi router. Naturally, the further you move away from the hub, the poorer your internet connection will be. Those dead spots around the house can become frustrating when your Wi-Fi signal shows 1 bar and it takes 5 minutes to load a single web page. Mesh Wi-Fi is the solution.”

Collett says he specifically researched a product that looked good, offered app-based management and required no cables. His research led him to Silicon Valley, and the result is the Supersonic Plume Mesh network system.

The drawback is that installation can be complicated for the non-technical consumer. To plug the gap, so to speak, Supersonic sends out technicians who conduct a Wi-Fi sweep of a home and advise how many Plume devices will be needed for 100% coverage. Based on this the technicians make a recommendation for an optimal “smart Wi-Fi”solution. Once installed, though, the network can be monitored and managed from a Supersonic App.

We tried it out and found it was a tale of two experiences. The initial experience was frustrating, as the pods tried to find each other. This is a necessary evil, it seems, as the Plume Mesh network optimises itself over a period of several days. That means the experience at the edge of the network can be very poor at the time of installation. After a few days, however the network was flying.

With a 100Mbps line, the experience next to the main router was around 105 Mbps, both up and down. That in itself was something of a marvel. But the biggest impact was felt at the furthest point from the router: where a Wi-Fi extender had previously delivered speeds of below 10Mbps, download speeds of 80Mbps became not only commonplace, but almost taken for granted.

One of the most useful features of the Plume Mesh is the level of monitoring offered through the Supersonic app. One can observe exactly what devices are connected to which pods – each is given a name, typically of the room, that is visible only through the app.

The biggest surprise of the plume solution is that it has not become a standard solution for Wi-Fi networks everywhere. In an era when we have become deeply dependent on a decent Wi-Fi signal, it has become a necessity rather than a luxury. As a result, home connectivity should be taken far more seriously than merely fobbing consumers off on low-performance extenders. 

MTN seems to have taken this message to heart, rethinking its own approach to home usage.

“Internet access has become the third utility behind electricity and water,” says Collett. “Our goal is to ‘own the home’ but not just by connecting a bunch of devices to a central point. It’s really about how these devices can pioneer habitual change in the home that’s convenient and saves valuable time and money.”

Click here to read about SuperSonic’s pricing.

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Samsung enters 2020 with six new smartphones

With six new devices, Samsung has started 2020 on the right foot and in the right direction with strong devices at attractive price points, writes BRYAN TURNER.

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In Johannesburg this week, Samsung unveiled six new devices, five of which aim to simplify the various Samsung Galaxy lineups.

The most notable new handset, the Galaxy Note10 Lite, has arrived in South Africa – and in record time. The device was unveiled at CES 2020 in Las Vegas only two weeks ago, and is expected to launch in South Africa in the next two weeks.

The Note10 Lite shaves off a few arguably non-essential features from the Note10 to make Note features accessible to more South Africans. These features include wireless charging, waterproofing and a curved screen. Other than that, the Note10 Lite still features the iconic S-Pen, including all the cool features of the new S-Pen. Of course, the Lite comes in at around R7000 less than its more feature-rich sibling, which is a huge price drop considering the three non-vital features it sacrificed.

For a full specs list of the features of the Note10 Lite, please read our launch coverage from CES 2020.

“We have to be able to support the customers with better memory and better battery,” says Justin Hume, director of integrated mobility at Samsung South Africa. “128GB storage becomes fairly standardised across the range. From a battery perspective, we now see 5000 milliamp batteries making an appearance on A21 and A31 product. So you can see the customer is truly getting great value for their money there. But as we focus on those products, we are also introducing a brand new product into the range, which is the Note 10 Lite and we are making the S-Pen more accessible to everyday South Africans.”

Samsung’s extensive lineups, the Galaxy S, A, J, and Z lines, were understandable because they were all set at their own price points. For a while, it made sense that the Galaxy S range were the flagships, the Galaxy A range was the high-mid range devices, the Galaxy J devices were mid-range, and the Galaxy Z devices were entry-level.

Until they weren’t. When Galaxy Z devices from 2017 started being better than Galaxy A devices from 2018, it became apparent that technology was moving forward way too quickly to have so many lines. Consumers also became confused because the Galaxy A devices were supposed to hold a level of status that was shared with the Galaxy Z range just a year later.

Last year, Samsung reduced its device line to Galaxy S for its flagships and Galaxy A for everything else. It now launches devices under the A prefix with a numbered suffix indicating the level of its specifications. The new lineup started taking shape with the Galaxy devices last year with the Galaxy A50 and Galaxy A70, and consolidated the Z and J devices to the Galaxy A10, A20, and A30.

This year, Samsung has announced the Galaxy A11, A21, A31, A51 and A71, which provide a clear indication of which devices they will be succeeding. The devices will be released throughout 2020, staggered over the next few months until July.

The Galaxy A11 will feature a large 6.4-inch screen with an Infinity-O display, which is a punch hole for the front camera. On this device, the punch hole will be on the corner of the screen, instead of in the middle as with the Note10 handsets.

For an entry-level device, it’s surprising to see a triple camera array with a 13MP main sensor, an 8MP ultrawide lens, and a 2MP depth-sensing camera for portrait mode pictures. It will also support 15W fast-charging and features a 4000mAh battery. It will start at R2999 for the 32GB version and will be available in July 2020.

The Galaxy A21 shows off a slightly larger 6.5-inch screen and a triple rear camera system as well, but ups the ante with a 48MP main rear sensor. The battery will also be a whopping 5000mAh, with 15W fast charging as well. It will start at R3499 for the 32GB version and will be available in June 2020.

The Galaxy A31 will go back to 2019 roots with its display featuring an Infinity-U display, which is a tear-drop notch in the middle for the front camera. What users will get from the display is an in-screen fingerprint sensor, which can unlock the phone by reading one’s fingerprint through the display.

It will pack another camera in the array. It will feature the familiar 48MP and 8MP ultrawide lenses, with an upgraded 5MP depth sensor and a 5MP macro lens for taking sharper close-up shots. It will also feature the massive 5000mAh battery as in the A21, with 15W fast charging support. It will start at R5499 for the 128GB version and will be available in May 2020.

The Galaxy A51, which we will be providing a review of soon, gets closer to the flagships with some impressive features, like the quad-camera array in the A31, as well as a wide-angle 32MP selfie camera. It features an Infinity-O display, with a punch hole in the centre like the Note10. It also houses Samsung’s Exynos 9611 CPU, which is suitable for playing graphically intensive games. It starts at R6999 for the 128GB version and is available now.

The Galaxy A71, which is right below the Galaxy S10 in the line of devices, features a Qualcomm Snapdragon 730, which also translates to having a better graphics processor and a better gaming experience. It will feature a similar quad-camera array with a 64MP main sensor. It starts at R8999 for the 128GB version and will be available from February.

Samsung has shown off its strong competitive by revealing so many products at the beginning of the year. This will be an interesting year in the mid-range handset space, now that Samsung is pulling out the stops to put so much value into its mid-range devices.

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Security issues grow with transition to smart TVs

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You can’t picture a modern home without smart equipment. Smart thermostats, smart refrigerators, robot vacuums, and smart TVs won’t surprise anyone these days. For example, around 70% of the TVs being sold worldwide are smart TVs. Although they bring more entertainment, these devices also carry new digital threats. 

Sometimes people forget that smart TVs are as vulnerable to cybercrime as their smartphones and computers. Daniel Markuson, the digital privacy expert at NordVPN, says that “although smart TVs are connected to the internet and have similar functions to computers, they aren’t equipped with the same security tools, which makes them easy prey for hackers.” 

What’s so scary about your TV getting hacked? As smart TVs gain more features, the amount of your private information they handle increases too. TVs aren’t just for watching movies and shows anymore. Now you can use them for web browsing, streaming video content, gaming, and even shopping online. 

To enjoy your smart TV to the fullest, you need to download various apps and games. These cost money, so you need your credit card details filled in. Putting your financial information, logins, and passwords on your TV makes it an appealing target for hacking. 

According to Daniel Markuson, a smart TV can be used to spy on its users. Hackers can access its camera and microphone through malware, which they can slip into your TV when it is connected to Wi-Fi. They can use footage from your bedroom or living room to blackmail you and your family. By watching your home and listening to your conversations, hackers know what goods you have, where you keep them when you’re away, and what your plans are. 

If you use your smart TV for web browsing, you can infect it with various viruses too, says the digital privacy expert at NordVPN. Like computers, smart TVs run on software, but they don’t have the same strong antivirus and firewall systems installed. Once your TV gets infected, your browsing history, passwords, and other private data become accessible to hackers. And they won’t miss the opportunity to use this information in ransomware attacks. 

Even though smart TVs are vulnerable to cyber threats, Daniel Markuson says there is no need to panic yet. The expert names a few simple principles every smart TV owner should follow to protect their device.

Always update your TV’s software whenever a new version becomes available. The expert says that software updates are crucial for cybersecurity as manufacturers do their best to patch vulnerabilities. Updates often repair security flaws, fix or remove various bugs, add new features, and improve the existing ones. Some TVs install updates automatically by default. With others, you may need to check for updates periodically to make sure your device runs on the latest version. 

Use available security measures such as a VPN. The best practice for any internet-connected device is to install a firewall and use a VPN such as NordVPN. It secures your device and lets you enjoy fast internet access with encryption-powered privacy.

Connect your smart TV to the internet only when needed. It isn’t necessary to have your TV connected to Wi-Fi all the time. To make it less vulnerable to hacker attacks, turn on the Wi-Fi connection only when you are using it.

Download apps from official stores only. Do not install any programs and games from unofficial sources on your smart TV. Make sure that both the app and its provider are reliable. Moreover, if an application asks for access to your data, camera, or microphone that isn’t necessary for its operation, never accept it.

Be careful with personal files and financial data. Shopping online on a big smart TV screen might be fun, but be careful providing your credit card details and other sensitive information this way. Although some manufacturers equip their TV sets with security features, they cannot guarantee safety online. “People who synchronize their smart TVs with their computers to access compatible media content should be especially cautious,” warns Daniel Markuson. The connection between your smart TV and your computer can be a weak link and lead to a data breach.

Use strong Wi-Fi passwords. This practice is the most obvious and the easiest to follow. Create a strong password to protect your Wi-Fi connection at home and don’t share it with any outsiders.

Turn off your TV camera when not in use. Whether it’s a built-in camera or the one connected to a TV via Wi-Fi, turn it off when not using it. If you can’t turn off your camera, use a piece of tape or a sticker over the camera lens to cover it. 

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